(Beirut) – Saudi courts are sentencing prominent reform advocates, activists, and writers to lengthy jail terms – and even death – on vague charges related to the peaceful exercise of free expression.

Most recently, on December 21, 2015, a Saudi court sentenced Zuhair Kutbi, a peaceful critic who called for domestic political reform, to four years in prison, a five-year travel ban, and a 15-year ban on media appearances. It is only the latest in a series of harsh judgments against peaceful advocates during King Salman’s first year.

“Human rights advocates hoped that King Salman would rein in his country’s repression of peaceful dissidents, but the authorities harass and jail people for peacefully expressing reform-oriented opinions,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “The king should put an end to this sustained assault on free expression and release all peaceful activists and writers.”

Human rights advocates hoped that King Salman would rein in his country’s repression of peaceful dissidents, but the authorities harass and jail people for peacefully expressing reform-oriented opinions. The king should put an end to this sustained assault on free expression and release all peaceful activists and writers.

Sarah Leah Whitson

Middle East Director


During 2015, at least six men, including prominent writers, dissidents, and reform advocates, were punished for peaceful expression of their opinions. One was sentenced to death and the others to lengthy prison terms. At least four were also banned from traveling abroad for five to 10 years. Most faced broad, catch-all charges designed to criminalize peaceful dissent, such as “sowing discord,” “reducing the government’s prestige,” and “inciting public opinion.” The Specialized Criminal Court, set up in 2008 to try terrorism cases but often used to prosecute peaceful dissidents, convicted four of the men.

The authorities have harassed Kutbi for his peaceful writings since the 1990s and have detained him at least six times, according to Saudi activists. His most recent arrest followed an hour-long appearance on the television program Fi al-Sameem (In-Depth), on the Arabic satellite channel Rotana Khalejia. Kutbi spoke about what he regarded as necessary reforms, including transforming the country into a constitutional monarchy and combating religious and political repression.

The court convicted Kutbi on December 21, 2015, on a host of vague charges, including “sowing discord,” “inciting public opinion,” and “reducing the government’s prestige,” according to court documents Human Rights Watch reviewed, primarily based on Kutbi’s tweets, writings, and calls for a constitutional monarchy. The court also decided that Kutbi’s media appearances violated a 2013 pledge not to “incite public opinion,” which he made in relation to other writings.

In addition to his prison term, two years of which the court suspended, and the bans on travel and writing, he was fined 100,000 Saudi riyal (US$26,634) and ordered to delete his Twitter account and the websites he maintained that were mentioned in the case.

On November 18, 2015, an appeals court upheld a sentence of two years and 200 lashes against Mikhlif al-Shammari, a well-known human rights activist, for, in part, “sitting with Shia” citizens. Al-Shammari has sought to improve relations between Sunnis and Shia and made national headlines in 2008 when he visited a Shia mosque in Qatif and prayed next to a Shia religious leader in a show of solidarity.

On November 17, a Saudi court sentenced a Palestinian man to death for apostasy for alleged blasphemous statements in a discussion group and a book of his poetry. Ashraf Fayadh, 35, denied the charges and claimed that another man made false accusations to the country’s religious police following a personal dispute.

In October, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced three men to extended prison terms in separate trials. Two of them, Abd al-Kareem al-Khodr and Dr. Abd al-Rahman al-Hamid, were among the co-founders of the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), several members of which had already been imprisoned for their activism. The third, Abd al-Aziz al-Snaidi, is an independent dissident. The sentences ranged from eight to 10 years, plus eight- to 10-year travel bans. All of the charges against the three men were tied solely to the men’s peaceful advocacy.

In addition to the most recent convictions, more than a dozen prominent Saudi activists are serving long jail sentences as a result of their peaceful activism, including Waleed Abu al-Khair and Fadhil al-Manasif, sentenced to 15 and 14 years respectively in prison by the Specialized Criminal Court as a result of their peaceful human rights work.

Saudi authorities regularly pursue charges against human rights activists based on their peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, in violation of international human rights obligations. The Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia has ratified, guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression in Article 32. The United Nations General Assembly’s Declaration on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders states that everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to “impart or disseminate to others views, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

“Outlandish sentences against peaceful activists and dissidents demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s complete intolerance toward citizens who speak out for human rights and reform,” Whitson said. “Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be sending people to prison for their peaceful opinions, and these cases certainly have no business in a terrorism court.”